Business

Proposal for massive marijuana facility divides North Andover

A rendering of marijuana plants being grown indoors at a proposed site in North Andover.
Massachusetts Innovation Works
A rendering of marijuana plants being grown indoors at a proposed site in North Andover.

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NORTH ANDOVER — Dr. Jeff Goldstein is hunting for “a billion-dollar molecule.” But to find it, he first needs permission from residents here to grow marijuana — actually, a stupendous amount of marijuana.

That’s why, on Sunday afternoon, he was pacing anxiously behind a small folding table in the lobby of Osgood Landing, the massive former Lucent Technologies plant he bought with his wife in 2003 and now hopes to convert into one of the world’s largest indoor marijuana growing and research centers.

Goldstein was hosting an open house for North Andover residents ahead of a Town Meeting vote Tuesday on a series of bylaws that would pave the way for his 1.1-million-square-foot marijuana facility. One would authorize the town to negotiate compensation from his company, Massachusetts Innovation Works, that could be worth $100 million over 20 years to North Andover.

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“I live around the corner,” Goldstein blurted out to one couple, eager to prove his local credentials. “If you go down to Foster Street and make a left, that’s where I am.”

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Like many communities in Massachusetts, which in July will become the first state east of the Mississippi to allow commercial pot sales, North Andover is grappling with what it would mean to host such a facility. Some residents think it would be a point of pride, putting North Andover at the forefront of cannabis science; others are worried the operation would normalize drug use for their children or define the town as an epicenter of pot and make it a tempting target for federal law enforcement raids.

The building complex dates to the 1950s, when Lucent’s predecessors made equipment for the old Bell telephone system. At its peak, before global competition made it cheaper to produce telecom gear elsewhere, the sprawling complex employed 12,000 people and constituted 10 percent of North Andover’s tax base. Lucent stayed as a tenant until 2007, when it ended production.

Now, many North Andover residents are anxious to see the 169-acre, half-empty property returned to full use. The $5 million annual payment Goldstein has promised is more than 10 times the amount the property currently generates in taxes.

A radiation oncologist, Goldstein became interested in the medicinal possibilities of marijuana after working for a year in Israel, where cannabis is more commonly used as a pain medication.

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“Until I left for Israel in 2013, I sat around all day writing [prescriptions for] narcotics . . . ” Goldstein told residents at the open house. In Israel, “patients were preferring and using medical cannabis.”

North Andover residents Dee McKeen (left) and Heather Norwood looked at renderings and maps.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
North Andover residents Dee McKeen (left) and Heather Norwood looked at renderings and maps.

In Goldstein’s vision, recreational marijuana would be the key product. About two-thirds of the roughly 300,000 plants in a fully built-out cultivation space would be sold for recreational use. Goldstein said the profits would fund research on marijuana-based medicines and indoor growing technology, among other innovations.

The cultivation space alone would cost $100 million, and the company projects the facility would eventually employ 1,500 mostly high-skilled workers. Goldstein has hired a cannabis-grower from the Netherlands, a businessman with experience in the Colorado pot market, and former technology executives from the area.

The facility would still need additional approvals from state agencies and North Andover. As a whole, the town voted against the referendum permitting recreational marijuana in 2016.

In advance of the Town Meeting vote, Massachusetts Innovation Works funded an advocacy group, the “Osgood Revitalization Coalition,” to lobby residents. Proponents extol the medical benefits of marijuana and argue the facility would help reduce the stigma around cannabis.

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“I have a debilitating illness, but I’ve yet to partake in marijuana for pain because I’m worried about what my customers would think and what the world would think,” said Heather Norwood, a 52-year-old resident and owner of a local barbershop. “I’m hoping with research and innovation like they’re proposing here, people would get more educated and understand that a hard-working citizen can actually use something like this and it’s not a negative thing.”

But skeptics wonder whether all the talk of medicine is just a smoke screen to obscure that North Andover would host one of the biggest pot factories in the world.

“I think that sends a very mixed message to our children,” said Jennifer Watson, a 44-year-old resident with three children under 14. “They’re going to say, ‘is it really that bad?’”

Opponents also worry the North Andover facility would be a target of federal law enforcement, since the Trump administration has reversed the hands-off marijuana enforcement policy of the Obama era. And the local skeptics aren’t convinced the $5 million annual payments will ever materialize, noting the state’s recreational pot law bars marijuana businesses from paying communities much more than the actual costs they impose.

Massachusetts Innovation Works said it does not expect the town to shoulder any costs, yet it still insists its tentative deal with North Andover is legal, because it’s being negotiated under the state’s earlier medical marijuana law, which allows for larger payments. Skeptical residents, however, fear the contract could be deemed invalid by a judge or state regulators.

Watson, for one, said she decided to oppose the project after the open house because she wasn’t convinced the company will make good on the payments to North Andover.

Others in the marijuana business also question whether the company’s promises are realistic. “It’s absurd to make the promise and it’s absurd to believe the promise,” said Valerio Romano, an attorney who represents other marijuana firms seeking state licenses. “Cannabis isn’t the cash cow that people think it is.”

Romano said the large offer could prompt other communities to demand similar payments from marijuana operators, in turn driving up retail pot prices and sustaining the cheaper illicit market.

The issue has sparked a rancorous debate, dominating, for example, the discussion on a Facebook group of local mothers, according to Watson. Norwood said she won’t even bring the subject up with her barbershop clients.

To supporters, the plant is ideally set up for growing marijuana: It has huge interior spaces, a 50-megawatt substation to power the numerous lights needed to grow indoors, and private wells so the company doesn’t draw tens of thousands of gallons of water from the municipal system. The campus is also set apart from neighboring properties, and company officials said it will be easy to secure against intrusion.

Goldstein’s executives argued that growing marijuana is about the only thing the property is good for. Large-scale manufacturing has all but left New England, making it near impossible to find tenants for the property’s largest spaces. And unlike manufacturing, the marijuana business will certainly get bigger; industry estimates put annual sales in Massachusetts at a minimum of $1 billion by 2020.

If the North Andover operation is permitted by state and local authorities for the full 1 million square feet of cultivation space, Goldstein projects it could supply as much as 10 percent of the marijuana sold here. Massachusetts Innovation Works also plans to open three dispensaries of its own, though not in North Andover.

Many residents left the open house Sunday the same way they arrived: conflicted.

“If it’s true that there are all these parts of the cannabis plant that could potentially be used for different diseases, this could be a phenomenal opportunity,” said Dana Dubois, who previously worked on clinical trials for a pharmaceutical company. “But I’m hesitant also. I’m worried about damaging what we have in this wonderful town.”

“I’m leaning towards taking the chance,” she said, staring across the vast manufacturing floor. “Hopefully my friends won’t disown me.”

In Dr. Jeff Goldstein’s vision, recreational marijuana would be the key product grown in the facility.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
In Dr. Jeff Goldstein’s vision, recreational marijuana would be the key product grown in the facility.

Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.